Wednesday, December 6, 2017

☸️ Craft Beer and Bitterness

One comment I often hear is, “I don’t like bitter beers.” While acknowledging tastes cover a wide spectrum, I can empathize. I wasn’t fond of anything more bitter than a brown ale at first, either. This article details why bitterness need not be an impediment to finding craft beer pleasing to your palate.

Whether food, spirits, wine, or beer, what’s good is what you like. Nobody can dictate your tastes. The only way to know whether you like something – if it’s pleasing to your palate – is to try it, usually more than once, and to recognize that your palate will change over time as you sample more. With so many beer styles and variations to choose from, though, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Bitterness is imparted by the use of hops in the boil phase of beer making. A well-balanced beer will provide hoppy flavors and aromas up front, followed by malt breadiness. So-called “hoppy” beers are those that lean more heavily on hops, but they’re not necessarily bitter. There are hoppy beers with an earthy, even musty flavor. Properly offset by malt they can be quite good. English ales revel in these flavors.

Hops impart flavors from ingredients that aren’t actually in the beer. Grapefruit, pine resin, nuts, and pepper are a few examples. Malt adds its own complexities: coffee, chocolate, bread. Unfiltered yeast can add a mildly sour tang to the mix. The combination can result in varying degrees of bitterness. My point is to not shy away from hoppiness for its own sake. A good starting point is a lighter, filtered beer, one not renowned for its bitterness.

I suspect many jump in at the deep end with an IPA – they’ve been all the rage over the past few years, particularly among American craft brewers – and discover that hops are bitter, IPAs involve more and varied hopping, and the guiding principle at some breweries is more is better. The result is often negative. A mouthful of pucker is not what a Bud Light drinker is expecting right off the bat, and the experience will likely send him or her right back to the mild shelter of Anheuser’s most popular product.

That’s a shame. Even among India Pale Ales there’s a wide variety of flavor and bitterness. It’s an acquired taste, though, and there are plenty of IPAs I wouldn’t go back for. These ales are not the starting point you’re looking for.

A practice I’m seeing at craft breweries is helpful. After “welcome,” the first question a server asks is “have you been here before?” This begins a short process of guiding new visitors to a beer they’re more likely to enjoy. A first-time visitor might be aimed at a pilsner, or a kolsch. An amber ale is often a good starting point, and a tick up on the flavor scale.

The key is finding a stepping-on point that doesn’t challenge the new craft beer drinker’s palate too much, while providing a flavorful example of how enjoyable fresh beer can be. Think of the palate challenge as you would a buffet. You’re not going to like everything, but everything should be distinctive. It’s these distinctions you begin to appreciate with more sampling.

Another common sight is a beer menu with ABV and IBU values alongside each beer. ABV is simply alcohol by volume. Craft beer generally runs from the low 4% to the upper 5% range, with imperial offerings clocking in above that. Specially-brewed high-alcohol beers can rate as high as wine – say, 13% or so – and are best enjoyed in a small snifter, slowly. So-called session beers, with lower alcohol that go down easy, are often a good starting point.

More critical for finding a less challenging beer is the IBU rating. IBU stands for international bittering units, and provides an objective scale of bitterness based on a beer’s alpha acid content. Alpha acids are released from hops in the boil. Generally, a higher IBU rating means the beer is more bitter on the palate, but other factors can affect how the beer actually tastes. A dark beer, one made with roasted barley malt, will taste less bitter at the same IBU rating than a pale beer. Still, it’s a good yardstick for bitterness. New craft beer drinkers should aim low on the IBU scale for a more palatable drink.

It’s often the case that even the mildest beer on tap carries some measure of bitterness unexpected by the first-time drinker. The point of craft beer is making and serving a full-flavored product. A pilsner, the style the big brewers emulate, should have a hint of hoppiness and a malty body that lingers briefly before disappearing altogether. This is what good beer really tastes like.

Repeated exposure to varying flavor profiles will broaden your palate. Flavor details will begin to emerge. This is where the fun begins with craft beer – there’s no end to variations on style, so while you may find a favorite beer, you’ll also find ten more that you enjoy. And those ten will change as you sample more styles.

In my next article I’ll discuss your best entrée to a brewery’s menu, the tasting flight.

Until then, cheers!

#bitterness #beer #craftBeer #IPA #pilsner #hops #malt